Good feedback gone bad

Feedback, oh, feedback. The holy grail of management, leadership and any self-respecting, self-aware employee or freelancer in pursuit of greatness. Many a book was written on why and how to deliver and how to receive it. But is good feedback universally good?

Let's start with why feedback is so celebrated in the first place. What is it good for? The mastery bit in “autonomy, mastery and purpose”. We want to be better at what we're doing, and we want others around us to improve (read: be more like us, but more on that in a minute). Feedback is the navigator of our journey—an indispensable aid in these circumstances:

  • your environment changed—new team, new boss, new workplace—and you want to fit in. Conversely, you have a new, direct report and you want them to fit in. Feedback will highlight the rough edges, and hopefully inspire change towards adjustment.
  • you're on a path of learning—acquiring new skills, practicing—and you want to gauge how you're doing. Are you actually getting better? How much?
  • you work with someone with a disruptive habit. Maybe they're too possessive of the keyboard in pair programming, maybe they talk too loudly, or perhaps they have bad breath. You want this to stop. Conversely, you're the one with a disruptive habit that's sabotaging your relationships with others, yet you're unaware of it.

A little positive feedback here and there, and people improve their skills, get rid of their quirks and tighten relationships with their colleagues. Wonderful!

Hold on.

The hallmark of getting older and acquiring experience is that you consider the bigger picture whenever making judgments. A young gun will exclaim “feedback's great!", an elder will tell you “it depends”.

Chances are, if you've been working for a few years—say, over a decade, like myself—you had many different feedback sessions. I certainly had. I found out people often see me as difficult to convince and sometimes arrogant. Understood. I addressed these issues by being more outspoken about my reasons to think in a certain way—live less in my head, if you will—and by spending more face-to-face time with others, so that they get to know me better.

But I can't change my biology in any fundamental way. I have a character, like everyone, and I've a body language that comes with that. Both will soften with the years, but I will never be universally likable.

I heard that same feedback over and over again and hearing it anew, every time I change workplaces, doesn't help me in any way.

Or, consider mandated feedback. Recurring sessions called performance reviews, appraisals, 360s or anything else. These will normally be structured. Someone in the organization will have defined performance standards, like agreeability or integrity, and whoever is delivering the feedback is expected to judge the recipient according to those standards.

Suppose one of the standards is that the organization expects people to be proactive in managing customer relationships. You're appraising a colleague, who doesn't talk much with the customer and thus doesn't fulfill the said standard. What do you do? How do you rate them? Maybe they're delivering excellent work otherwise, it's just that they're a bit shy and feel more comfortable letting other team members address the customer. Do you really need them to change? Or can you just embrace them in the bigger team they're part of, and let everyone contribute their best skills?

The above examples show that not all feedback is good, and not always. Even if delivered compassionately and constructively, some of it will be useless, and some downright harmful.

I propose, whenever we consider giving feedback, starting off with a checklist:

  1. Decide if you really want the other person to change something. If you can live with their quirks, that's better for everyone.
  2. Make sure you're the right person to deliver the feedback. If you never worked with me and are going to judge me based on hearsay, I'm not going to listen.
  3. Make sure they want to hear your feedback. If they didn't ask you explicitly for it, do ask them first.

Only once we cover the one, two, three, should we move on to the rest of the industry best practices in delivering feedback. We're human, incredibly complex and non-deterministic. Let's account for that when we collaborate with one another.

I make software. And other things. Mostly in Warsaw, Poland, from wherever there's an Internet connection, power outlet and fresh coffee. I love to read and learn how the world works. You should follow me at @mpaluchowski.

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